A Week of Tragedy and Wonders: Boston, Waco, and Times Like This

Think way back to ten days ago.

Kim Jong Un’s bizarre anti-US saber rattling: nuke tipped missiles aimed at a Colorado Springs (located squarely in the heart of Texas). On April 15 he promised hellfire to commemorate his grandfather, the patriarch of his dynasty.

Then, at 3pm that Monday, came two near-simultaneous explosions at an event known for dignity, endurance and achievement. Three young people lost their lives, dozens lost limbs, bystanders and first responders ran to the rescue. The EMS, hospitals and Emergency Departments of Boston absorbed the unexpected horror without hesitation. 

The world of Emergency Services was ready. “No matter how much drilling you do, you will never really prepare yourself for what this is like,” said Ron Walls, ED chairman at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where many victims were brought. More than just drills: an email from ACEP went to every member ER doc on how to treat blast injuries and current advice on the proper use of tourniquets.

That’s one side of how far we’ve come since 9/11. The other component is information preparedness. We knew there were going to be images. And cell phone tracking. That the bomber(s) would be ID’d fast.

Tuesday and Wednesday followed with further evidence of a world better, worse and same as before: ricin letters to the President and Senate – followed by a lightning-fast ID and capture. A failed vote on the least controversial and best supported measure to improve gun sale background checks, interrupting the reports of the survivors conditions, the first glimpses of the suspects and the identities of the dead. To me, these are mind-bending paradoxes: we love and support our cops and EMS, but we can’t put the brakes on the dangers they warn against. As a society we work so spectacularly in times of crisis, but we cannot derail the will of either a few deranged lone extremists or the influence of a few powerful lobbyists.

And then, just when it seemed as if we had used up all our fair share of shocks, came the “nuke”-like explosion near Waco at a fertilizer plant. It probably got lost in the tornado of events, but the image of first responders in the night is the most impressive thing I’ve seen in a long time happened: fifteen miles from the middle of nowhere, in a town with fewer people than a Bethesda hi-rise, in the middle of the night hundreds upon hundreds of first responders, ambulances and medics all arrived and co-ordinated a completely unplanned rescue effort as if it was DNA itself uncoiling and creating life.

If you’ve only seen the picture of the blast or the tower of smoke, look at this picture and marvel at the amount of preparation, rehearsal, discipline and trust goes into creating a chain of hope like this. It’s a reflection of trust and caring in our bones and investment in our communities.

“It’s times like this that bring out the best in everybody,” said Dr. Richard Wolfe of Beth Deaconess Hospital in Boston, speaking about the response to the marathon bombings. “People are willing to help, they’re willing to collaborate. Egos dissipate and people tend to work together the way you just don’t see on a regular basis. From my standpoint, watching how well the teams worked, …was a validation of what emergency medicine is all about, and what emergency medicine training is.”

All of this was unimaginable a week ago. Planned for, rehearsed, but still somehow not quite real. Neither the bitterness and loss of attacks here at home nor the beauty and raw power of co-ordinated emergency services magically appearing from thin air. A Facebook picture captures it best: the oceans of runners taking off at the start if the race, with the caption: “you’ve just pissed off a lot of people who can run faster than you and never give up. Real smaht.”